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State v. Shackelford

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 19, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 18 October 2018.

          Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 18 August 2017 by Judge Yvonne Mims Evans in Mecklenburg County Mecklenburg County, Nos. 16 CRS 10028-30, 34Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Solicitor General Matthew W. Sawchak and Assistant Solicitor General Kenzie M. Rakes, for the State.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender James R. Grant, for defendant-appellant.

          DAVIS, JUDGE.

         In this appeal, we address the question of whether a defendant's criminal prosecution for violations of North Carolina's stalking statute infringed upon his constitutional right to free speech. Brady Lorenzo Shackelford ("Defendant") was convicted of four counts of felony stalking based primarily upon the content of posts made by him on his Google Plus account. Because we conclude that the application of the statute to Defendant's posts amounts to a violation of his right to free speech under both the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 14 of the North Carolina Constitution, we vacate his convictions.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The State presented evidence at trial tending to establish the following facts: Defendant met "Mary"[1] on 3 April 2015 at a church in Charlotte, North Carolina prior to the start of a Good Friday worship service. Mary was employed in the church's communications department. The two of them were seated at the same table and briefly made small talk in a group setting before separating at the beginning of the service. Upon leaving church that day, Mary did not give any further thought to her encounter with Defendant.

         On 22 April 2015, Mary received an email from Defendant on her work email account that referenced their 3 April meeting and asked "for help with a company communications plan." Mary replied to his email later that day, informing him that she would be happy to assist him and suggesting a time for them to meet. Defendant responded shortly thereafter, agreeing to meet Mary on the date she had suggested.

         Later that same night, Defendant sent another email to Mary "to give [her] some information about [his] business[.]" In the email, Defendant detailed his plan to create a new business based in the British Virgin Islands. In the final paragraph of his email, Defendant wrote that he would pay Mary "100K out of the convertible note proceeds AND take [her] out to dinner at any restaurant in Charlotte."

         Defendant's email "set off a lot of red flags" for Mary. On 27 April 2015 she emailed Defendant to "cancel[ ] the meeting, thinking that his intentions were not really professional, and informed [her] boss" about the exchange. Later that day and again on 5 May 2015, Defendant emailed Mary in an attempt to reschedule their meeting. On 5 May 2015, Mary replied with links to online resources and wrote: "I won't be able to meet. If you have further questions, you can contact my boss[.]"

         On 19 May 2015, Defendant mailed a five-page handwritten letter to Mary's work address. At trial, Mary testified as follows with regard to this letter:

The gist of it was that when [Defendant] first saw me at the Good Friday service he thought he had found his soul mate, and that the feelings he felt were so intense he couldn't talk to me. And then he goes on to say that he used the communications plan to talk to me, to ask me out, rather than for professional reasons[.]

         Defendant ended the letter by writing that he was "highly attracted" to Mary and asking her to go on a date with him. The following day, Mary gave the letter to her work supervisors and asked them to intervene on her behalf, and they agreed to do so. She did not respond to Defendant's letter.

         On 26 May 2015, Defendant sent Mary a second handwritten letter, which was seven pages long and mailed to her home address. At trial, Mary provided a summary of the second letter:

He starts by apologizing for sending this to me without me giving him my address. He says he found it on a website. And he also says that he would not harass or stalk me, and that if I felt uncomfortable to notify him and he would cease communication. Then he goes on to talk about some of his personal history, and the last line says that I need to go on a date with him or tell him to leave me alone.

         Mary showed Defendant's letter to her supervisors, who once again told her that they would handle the situation.

         On 9 June 2015, Reverend Bill Roth, the Minister of Pastoral Care at the church, spoke to Defendant over the phone about his communications with Mary. During this phone call, Reverend Roth told Defendant "to stop making any contact [with Mary] and [that] there could be legal actions if he did, and that the contacts were unwanted." Following this conversation, Defendant did not send Mary any further emails or letters.

         In June of 2015, Mary logged into an account she had created on the social media service Google Plus. Upon doing so, she discovered that Defendant had "followed" her account sometime in late April of 2015 and had made four separate posts on his own Google Plus account in early June that referred to her by name. The posts on Defendant's Google Plus account were not specifically directed to Mary but were shared publicly on his account where any user of the service could read them.

         The first post, dated 2 June 2015, stated that "God chose [Mary]" to be Defendant's "soul mate." In the other three posts, Defendant wrote, among other things, that he "freely chose [Mary] as [his] wife" and wanted God to "please make [Mary]" his wife. After viewing these posts, Mary immediately blocked Defendant's account. Shortly thereafter, she deleted her own Google Plus account. Mary continued, however, to monitor Defendant's publicly shared posts by checking his Google Plus page "[a]t least once a week."

         Following his 9 June 2015 phone call with Reverend Roth, Defendant continued to post about Mary. None of his posts after that date referenced Mary by name, although one used her initials and another referred to her by a shortened version of her first name.

         On 19 June 2015, Defendant wrote the following post on his Google Plus account:

There is a woman from my church that is turning me bat crazy. She is the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I see before I lay down at night. I strongly believe that she is an angel in disguise, that she is the girl that God sent down from heaven for me. I strongly believe that she is my soul mate, that she is my destiny. My heart aches for her.

         He posted as follows on 28 June 2015:

I'm feeling depressed. There's a woman at my church that I want really, really bad, but she doesn't want me. I've prayed to God asking him to relieve this pain in my heart by allowing me to view just a small glimpse of her angelic face while in church, but God won't even give me that. ☺

         On 19 July 2015, Defendant wrote the following post:

I've changed my relationship status because too many single & looking women are adding me to their circles. There is only one woman that I want, and her initials are [Mary's initials]. Even though we aren't dating yet, you might as well mark me down as being in a relationship because I am not interested in other women.

         He also posted a message on 2 August 2015 stating that "I believe the woman who introduced me to my soul mate at my church's Good Friday service is jealous and envious of my love for my soul mate and would rather me be with her instead of my soul mate."

         On 13 August 2015, a box of cupcakes was delivered to Mary's office at her work. Attached to the box was a typed, unsigned note that read: "[Mary], I never properly thanked you for the help you gave me regarding my company's communication plan, so, with these cupcakes, please accept my thanks."

         Upon receiving the cupcakes, Mary filed a police report with Detective Stephen Todd, an off-duty Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department officer who worked at the church, because she "felt like she was being stalked." Based upon Mary's report, Detective Todd applied for an arrest warrant against Defendant on a charge of misdemeanor stalking. Defendant was arrested on 14 August 2015 and subsequently released on bail.

         The same day that he was arrested, Defendant posted the following message on his Google Plus account:

A woman I was interested in really, really bad has let it be known in no uncertain terms that she is not interested in me. Therefore, with a much heavy heart, I announce that I am officially single.:(
The pain hurts because I dreamt about this woman and believed that she was my soul mate. How could God be so wrong???

         On 16 August 2015, Defendant posted another message:

I study all religions, and I have been searching them all for the past day trying to find something, some quote, that would console me in my time of heartbreak. I just read something by Buddha that, instead of consoling me, actually made me angry. He said, "In the end, only three things matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you."
My question for Buddha is this: How do you know when something is not meant for you if you give up at the first sign of difficulty? Sometimes, God places difficulties in our lives because he wants us to be persistent in the face of those difficulties. For example, if a boy really wanted a girl, and the girl turned him down the first time he asked her out on a date, should he take Buddha's advice and gracefully let go of something not meant for him or should he continue courting the girl with the hope that she will one day say yes? If every guy let go of the girl who turned him down the first time, then there would be lots of marriages that never took place because he wasn't persistent. Had he been persistent, his persistence would have won her over by proving to her just how much he loved her. . . .

         Later that same day, Defendant posted as follows on his Google Plus account:

I have courted three Venus in Scorpios over the years, so I decided earlier this summer to learn everything that I could about Scorpios and Venus in Scorpios. I was reading this website about Scorpios this evening when I read a sentence that made me break out laughing so hard from the truth that I nearly died. The author was talking about their obsessiveness and stated, "Don't run away (you'll only be stalked)." I LMAO because I saw the behavior in all three women. Moreover, the Scorpio Ascendant in me completely understood where they were coming from.

         On 21 August 2015, Mary filed a petition for a no-contact order against Defendant in Mecklenburg County District Court. On 1 September 2015, the Honorable Becky Tin issued an order prohibiting Defendant from contacting Mary or "posting any information about [her] on social media."

         Later that month, Defendant authored the following post on his Google Plus account on the same date that Mary attended a Carolina Panthers football game: "Who is your favorite Carolina Panthers cheerleader? Mine is . . . I'm not telling, least [sic] I upset my Venus in Scorpio future wife. . . ." On 28 September 2015, Defendant posted: "OK, I've teased my Venus in Scorpio long enough. My favorite Carolina Panthers cheerleader is Emily. If she shows up missing, [shortened form of Mary's name], I'll know who to blame."

         Several weeks later, following a heavy rainstorm in South Carolina - where Mary's family lives - Defendant posted: "South Carolina got pummeled with rain. I pray my future wife's family is OK." On 4 October 2015, Defendant posed the following question on his account: "If you really loved someone and wanted to be with them forever, would you fly down to the Caribbean and secretly elope with them on a deserted island?"

         In an undated Google Plus post that was introduced as evidence at his trial, Defendant wrote, in relevant part, as follows:

I would love to learn more about the dynamic between me and my future wife, but I don't know her personality type. I do know that she is either an INFJ or an INFP because of a pin on her Pinterest board. Unfortunately, her pin is confusing because she says that she is an INFP while the image she pinned is that of an INFJ. I guess I will just have to study both of them.

         On 24 November 2015, Defendant sent an email to a close friend of ...

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